The announcement of the Zoom F8 in early 2015 was big news. Finally, a field recorder existed that offered some of the same features found on professional models that cost three times as much. On one hand, it seemed like a revelation — but it also seemed fishy. How many corners were cut to get the price that low, and are the missing features going to cause you pain?
My intention with this post isn’t to go into great detail about the specifications and features of the F8. That information is easy to find with a quick search. I want to shine a light on the kind of people who will truly benefit from buying the Zoom F8.
First let me explain exactly what the Zoom F8 is: this is a field recorder that can record 10 tracks of audio (8 isolated and a stereo mix). It has 8 XLR inputs, built-in timecode with input and output ports, it can run on batteries or AC power, etc. This is a recorder designed primarily for video production. In the image at the top of this post it’s mounted under a DSLR. That’s not the primary use for this thing, but, it’s something you can do with it.
Naturally, if the F8 was designed to record the audio for video productions, it should be a good option for a person who does that kind of work, right? Personally, I don’t find this to be the case. The F8 has some of the tools a professional audio person needs, but, it’s missing some essentials, too. If you’re doing paid audio-for-video jobs, and this is the work you do for food, clothing, and shelter, you probably don’t want an F8. You are much better off using a machine from Sound Devices or Zaxcom.
Why? When you’re a freelance audio professional, you need to deliver the goods. Recording audio for video productions is tough work. Your gear travels all over the place. You often strap it to your body all day long. You use it indoors and out. You use it in rainstorms, snowstorms, and saunas. The electronics you use in this line of work needs to be built for battle. You need tanks, and tanks are expensive. Sound Devices and Zaxcom only manufacture tanks.
One of the missing features on the F8 are physical faders for the tracks. The knobs on its face are for adjusting the trim of the preamps. Most professional devices of this sort have preamp knobs in addition to having smooth fader knobs for each channel. Preamp trims are used for setting your levels; faders are used to bring channels in and out of the mix, and to fine tune levels when you’re rolling. Working without physical faders would be awful.
To compensate for this, the Zoom F8 features a dedicated mobile app which enables you to control virtual faders via Bluetooth from a paired mobile device. In my opinion, this is totally lousy. Riding the faders is one of the more satisfying tasks in location work. Doing this with a mobile device is just totally unappealing. The beauty of having good physical faders is the ability to control them perfectly without looking.
Doing the mixing with a mobile device, especially for bag work is just wrong. Maybe if you had a cosy desk to sit at with an iPad to mix on it would be okay, but that’s it.
One of the things you need to do as a location sound person is to tell other people to turn off their phones. Mobile devices spray nasty sounding RF, which can create audible noise in the audio. If someone gets a text in the middle of a take, it can ruin the sound, even when the phone is silenced. This doesn’t always happen, but it certainly happens. If you need to tell people to stop using their beloved phones while you have one strapped to your chest, you’re going to look like a jerk.
Not only is a touchscreen a crappy surface to mix on, your gadget will likely distract you from your job. Phones and tablets glow and cast light everywhere, which will annoy the grips. And, I feel I need to say this again: mixing sound with a virtual fader on a flat plane of glass is lame. You should be able to close your eyes and mix a scene. Not possible with the F8.
Another big missing feature is a “Return” input. Why do you need this? When you do sound for video production, you are usually expected to feed the main camera an audio mix. This doesn’t need to be the final audio, it can just be a scratch mix, but it still needs to sound good. The only way to know if the mix you’re sending to the camera sounds okay and isn’t having technical problems is to listen to it. But how to you listen to a camera’s headphone output if you’re standing fifteen feet away from it with a boompole in your hands? You do this with the return input.
The best way to send a camera an audio feed is with a special cable called a “breakaway cable.” This is a bundle of cables bound together. It provides you with a way to send your mix to the camera, and a way to plug into the headphone output of the camera, so you can listen to it on the other end through your mixer.
Sometimes this done wirelessly. You need a stereo transmitter plugged into an auxiliary output on your mixer and you place a stereo receiver on the camera. You also need to plug a transmitter into the camera’s headphone output (perhaps using a Comtek system), and plug the receiver from that system into the return input on your mixer. This elaborate system is called a Camera Hop. The problem is that the Zoom F8 isn’t a full-blown mixer, and it doesn’t have a return input. I imagine the vast majority of people who are thinking about getting the Zoom F8 are picturing using it without a separate field mixer, but this is would be a severely lacking setup for this kind of work.
Who is the Zoom F8 good for?
Is the Zoom F8 for the person who cannot afford a Zaxcom or Sound Devices? The obvious answer is yes, but here’s the thing:
No one can afford Sound Devices or Zaxcom gear!
Professional quality equipment from Sound Devices, Zaxcom, and Lectrosonics are not purchased exclusively by rich people. Quite the opposite. They are purchased by people who save to get the tools required to deliver perfect sound to their clients every time, whether the shoot takes place in the Arctic Circle or the Sahara. The F8 doesn’t deliver this level of confidence.
If you’re just getting started in location audio and you want to become a pro, the F8 would look intensely tempting. But ultimately, I don’t think it’s a good option for this kind of user.
8 individual tracks of audio is A LOT. If you need this many tracks for a video production, you are likely running several wireless microphones, in addition to a boom mic or two. This would be a pretty complex shoot. It isn’t hard to imagine a low-budget reality show that needs more than five wireless mics running with isolated tracks of each mic. Someone producing a low-budget show like this would need to seek out a freelance sound person who would be willing to work for a low rate. That person might have an F8.
But here’s the thing: do you want to be that person? You would be doing an insane amount of work for a very low wage using thousands and thousands of dollars of your own equipment. Sounds like a pretty lame deal to me. The person who takes this job ultimately will want to aspire to better productions. When they get there, they will likely ditch the F8 for gear that is up to par with the work. This is why you’re better off skipping low-budget equipment, even if it looks pro.
If you’re just starting out in location audio, or, if you’ve been doing it passively for a while but the expensive price of pro recorders kept you from going all in, the F8 would be tempting. But honestly, this doesn’t seem like the best use of $1000 for these people.
In professional location audio work, your wireless microphones are your most important pieces of equipment. Professional wireless microphones cost a lot of money, too. If you aspire to be a professional location audio person, that $1000 would be better spent on a used pro-level wireless kit from Lectrosonics, even if they’re 10 years old. Don’t get an F8, get a used Lectrosonics 200 series wireless kit from eBay. You’re only getting a single wireless mic instead of 10 tracks of audio and a professional-looking gizmo, but, that single wireless mic is going to be something you rely upon constantly.
Depending on what kind of work you do, chances are you will very rarely need 8 individual tracks of audio, if ever. I’ve done lots of different kinds of shoots, everything from short films to web TV series to documentary. I’ve never needed more than 4 tracks. The vast majority of stuff I’ve done has been 2 tracks. Therefore, one of the most alluring things about the F8 is complete overkill for the vast majority of shoots.
So wait… who is the Zoom F8 good for?
The way I see it, the people who could get the best use out of a Zoom F8 are established pros. People who already own top-of-the-line gear from Sound Devices and Zaxcom, who need a small machine to do less important jobs. They likely run into situations once in a while where all of their good machines are busy, and if they had one more they could use it for a given low-priority task that popped up.
The F8 may also work well for corporate situations that are more studio based, rather than run-and-gun field work. If you have a panel of five or more people speaking, and they all need a mic, the F8 could be a decent tool to use.
I didn’t write this post to intentionally beat up the Zoom F8. It’s an interesting product, and it’s impressive for its price. The graphic user interface looks nicely designed. People who have used it are saying positive things about the quality of the preamps and the capability of its time code system.
Those people also have negative things to say about the F8. The headphone output sounds inaccurate (your recorded files will sound different than what you hear in the headphones). The trim knobs are too small, and there are other important buttons around them that you can accidentally press if you’re not careful. Its limiters exist in the digital realm, so if a hot audio signal distorts at the mic input stage, the F8 can’t try to limit that already distorted sound until it passes through the digital converter.
There are rumors that Zoom may be looking to update the firmware of the F8 so you can use its trim knobs as fader knobs, too. That would be an improvement, but not enough of one to make the Zoom F8 the best option for aspiring location sound people and filmmakers.
If you want nice sounding preamps but you don’t want to spend lots of money, I think recorders like the Zoom H5 and the Tascam DR-70D make a lot more sense for the majority of people out there. These cheaper recorders also make more sense for location sound people who are just starting out. It’s okay to start out with an entry-level recording device. It’s just smarter to buy real pro gear if you want to be a pro. It’s more expensive, but ultimately, it will save you money. If you are going pro, you are going to need that high-end gear, whether you buy an F8 or not.
If you’re an independent filmmaker who doesn’t own any audio recorders yet, you definitely don’t need a Zoom F8. Seriously. Go work on your story, do some preproduction… anything else related to your film. Tell the gear lust that drove you to read this entire article to go take a hike. :)
UPDATE – January 2016: Zoom recently updated the firmware for the F8. It now gives you the option to use its trim knobs as faders. In order to switch each channel from being a trim knob to a fader, a four step process is required, which involves selecting items from its on-screen menus.
UPDATE – November 2016: No one should decide whether or not to but the Zoom F8 until they have thoroughly checked out the new Zoom F4. This model was announced in November 2016, and you can read my thoughts on the device in this dedicated blog post.
Zoom F8 - Amazon USA, B&H Photo, Amazon.fr
Zoom F4 - Amazon USA, B&H Photo, Amazon.fr, Amazon.de
Zoom H5 - Amazon USA, B&H Photo, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr
Tascam DR-70D - Amazon USA, B&H Photo, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr